Much of this is information I’ve found through experimentation over the years – starting with intuition and working my way through to knowledge…with a few bumps in the road here and there! Hopefully, you’ll find what you need here, if not, please leave a comment and I’ll answer as quickly as I can.
I get calls from friends and family all the time with questions like, “I want to make this, but I don’t have that…” I always give them a suggestion or two, but here’s what I’d like to tell them – of course, if they find this post, I’ll miss their phone calls!
If all this is TMI, scroll to the bottom for a few “rules of thumb” and some ratios in substituting. This discussion is probably the most comprehensive you’ll find on substituting, but if you have a question, need direction or have other ideas, comment below – I’m happy to offer a suggestion, I’d love to hear your ideas!
I do love cooking with wine and various alcohols, especially liqueurs. I find them to be a relatively inexpensive ingredient, generally packing in a lot of flavor and enhancement to many recipes at not a lot of cost. At the risk of sounding stuffy, even a tiny teaspoon or so of the more expensive liqueurs added to a fresh berry sauce can elevate it from wonderful to sublime.
At the same time, if I’m considering frugality, I have to consider the overall cost. What is the alcohol/wine I’m thinking of using?
- How expensive is it?
- How well does it store?
- Will the rest of it be put to good use?
- Do I, perhaps, have something on hand already that I‘d like to use up?
- Will I need to purchase something especially for this dish?
As an aside, sometimes if I need a small amount of alcohol for a recipe, and it’s something I can’t imagine using in the future, I’ll purchase an ‘airline’ size bottle if available – Need I mention the 12-year-old bottle of Kirsch that I still have, leftover from a fondue?
What is the reason for substituting?
There may be many reasons I’d consider substituting one alcohol for another or an alcoholic ingredient for a non-alcoholic one. Here’s a few off the top of my head.
- Abstinence: Those who abstain may or may not be concerned about alcohol found in food depending upon their outlook and personal choices. All of the alcohol does not cook off in the process of cooking and baking, as was so often stated in the 60‘s and 70‘s. Some recipes and methods may cook off most of the alcohol, but some always remain behind.
- Availability: A certain wine or alcohol may not be readily available in your area. At the very least, may necessitate a trip to another store. There are those who just don’t keep alcohol in the house. (I have teenagers, and I’ve learned it’s not cost-effective or prudent for me to keep a bottle of Gran Marnier in the cupboard, for instance, to be downed in a sitting by my son and his friends! And that, my dears, is a whole ‘nother story!)
- Cost: A thrifty cook may want to get by with what he/she has, perhaps to use up what’s in the cupboard or to avoid paying for an additional purchase. One may want to substitute a less expensive ingredient for a more expensive one.
- Food Allergy: There could be any number of people who are allergic to sulfites, found in wine, or perhaps some ingredient in other alcohols.
- Religious Preference: A great many religions advocate abstaining from alcohol.
- Taste: Maybe a recipe or dish looks fantastic, but you or someone in your family doesn’t like the taste of the particular alcohol called for and you’d like to change the flavor profile, or maybe you’re serving to children and want to avoid a heavy alcohol taste – sometimes strong flavors don’t appeal to children (or adults.)
What is your Alcohol bringing to the table or to the Recipe?
Decide what the alcohol in the recipe does in terms of both flavor, sugars, acidity and liquid amount.
For example: You’re looking at a recipe for a sauce that has a cup of red wine and it’s reduced by half in the cooking process. Changing out one wine for another will be pretty straightforward as long as you keep to the general flavor of the wine.
If you want to eliminate the wine, you’ll know right away you’ll want something that has a lot of dark notes, a fairly strong, rich flavor, a touch of something acid and a bit of sweetness, and you’ll need to end up with about 1/2 cup of liquid.
Is wine or alcohol the primary ingredient/flavoring in the food you’re making?
If so, you may be changing the very nature of the dish by making changes to the ingredients – sometimes this is a good thing; it depends on your expectations.
Sometimes far more successful substitutions may be made when the alcohol is a merely a minor note in the symphony, rather than the whole band, if you get my drift.
Here’s an example: A classic dish like Boeuf Bourguignon, which nearly always calls for a full bottle of Burgundy AND a little brandy is not going to be the same dish if a substitution is made. It can still be a fantastic dish with a different wine, but it will not be Boeuf Bourguignon. I regularly use Beaujolais, generally a much less expensive wine instead of Burgundy when making this dish – less expensive and my family prefers a milder flavor profile.
If you’re looking for a non-alcoholic substitute, for instance, stock, broth or tomatoes, then you are serving a stew, which is fantastic in its own right, but still not a Boeuf Bourguignon. Here is a stew, Beef with Wine (or Not) and Bacon that I’ve adapted from a Cook’s Illustrated recipe I’ve made for years. Beef, Mushrooms, Pearl onions – it’s wonderful with or without wine. I’ve made a few suggestions on how to remove the alcohol and still maintain a rich flavor.
Sometimes a substitution where the alcohol plays a less key performance is an easier one to make – a no-brainer.
Examples might be:
- substituting a rum extract for a tablespoon of scotch in a dessert sauce,
- using a bit of orange schnapps instead of Grand Marnier in frosting,
- substituting a tablespoon of orange juice concentrate or a squeeze of fresh orange juice in a berry sauce.
If you don’t need the little zap of flavor the alcohol will give the dish, you can even leave out small amounts.
Is the substitution you’re making in keeping with the flavor profile of the dish or the menu?
You wouldn’t necessarily want to make dessert pears poached in wine with chicken broth and vinegar for instance (a common substitute for white wine in a savory dish,) and you may not want to substitute the tequila in a tequila marinated chicken breast with a wine in a menu of Southwestern-inspired dishes.
You might successfully make your dessert pears with any number of alcohols or extracts, simple syrups or juices and keep the true nature.
The tequila chicken breasts may be just as good changed up with chicken broth and a dash of vinegar or lime for tartness, keeping that astringency of the tequila and giving a nod to the southwestern flavor. A dash of vodka, if you have it on hand, wouldn’t hurt, either.
When thinking about substituting a less expensive alcohol for a more expensive one, consider how the flavor will play out and what will affect that flavor.
You can find fantastic bargains in wine and liquors if you’re shopping well – and if you can give up the idea that everything has to be top shelf or expensive to be good.
Price is not always an indicator of quality. Many producers make wines or alcohols targeted to different budgets and different taste – they want that share of the market. I’ve had fantastic wines that have only been a few dollars a bottle, and some really crappy expensive ones. Of course, I’ve had fantastic expensive ones and crappy, cheap ones, too!
I do notice a correlation of price to quality more in alcohols, for instance in a top-shelf tequila compared to one geared toward the younger crowd.
(As an aside, I do love Alton Brown’s idea of filtering your cheap Vodka through a coffee filter several times – he said the main difference in the prices is really the amount of filtering a company does. I do now and then infuse Vodka and use it for cooking and in cocktails.)
Do I really need to cook with something I’d drink?
No, no, no, no, no, no…and NO!
There are times when I think it would be an absolute shame to use a large amount of fantastic wine or alcohol in a dish – a waste. I don’t always follow a rule of “choose something you’ll drink.” Sorry, Julia and the many, many others who have parroted this saying for decades just because it “sounds” good when one says it. Use your ol’ noodle, as my Mom would have said!
Julia was talking about not using the horrid, salty, syrupy “cooking” wines one can buy at the grocery store.
I often buy a cheap bottle for cooking and a little bit better bottle for drinking, especially if I’ll need more than one bottle of wine for serving and cooking. If I only need, say a half of a cup, and there are just two of us, and we only want a glass or so with our meal, I’ll just go with one bottle of wine.
If a recipe for a Berry Sauce served over Shortcake with fresh berries and whipping cream calls for a teaspoon or so of Framboise, which is quite expensive, I’ll gladly throw a touch of raspberry schnapps in it, instead. Personally, I’m never tempted to drink that schnapps, but it does give a little something extra to the sauce that wouldn’t be there if I eliminated the alcohol altogether.
As another example: I might want to find a similar alcohol with a similar flavor profile instead of a cheaper alcohol of the type called for: If I’m making a punch that calls for champagne, I’d rather substitute an inexpensive sparkling wine than use a very cheap Champagne.
The Bottom Line on Quality and Flavor:
Long cooking times and reduction can magnify any flaws you might find in a poorly made or poorly stored wine (notice I didn’t say a cheap wine) or a very cheap alcohol, and it will be most noticeable if the alcohol is the primary flavoring ingredient in the dish and makes up a lot of the liquid content.
On the other hand, I’ve cooked with expensive wines and alcohols and I’ve cooked with cheap ones, too. I have substituted with abandon over the years and I’ve never made anything that I’ve thought was ruined by the taste of the alcohol or wine in the final dish.
Keeping Left Over Wine for Cooking
Another thing I do to be more frugal: I never waste wine! There are so many dishes that are improved by the deep flavors, the alcohol or the astringent notes in wine that I always find some use for a bit of leftover wine.
I have literally had wine, both red and white, that has been opened for a month or longer and still used it in long cooking stews and braises or pan sauces and gravies. There are hundreds of classic (and new) dishes that call for a bit of vinegar and/or wine that even if the wine has started to turn, they can still “bring it!” I wouldn’t, however, use an old wine in a dish that called for a delicate or a fresh flavor.
Another Way of Thinking – Alcohol is like Clothing:
Think of alcohol like you do clothing: Sometimes sweats are fine – you want the comfort factor or you’re working out, sometimes blue jeans are fine, and sometimes you absolutely need a formal dress or a suit. And by the way, some blue jeans are more expensive than a dress or a pair of dress slacks.
You probably won’t be wearing your expensive “Sunday best” to lounge around the house or do yard work, and if you’re interested in being frugal, you’re not going to spend $50.00 for wine for a stew you’re serving to your family on a Tuesday night. For that same stew, a few glugs of a budget bottle you have in the back of your cupboard might make it taste extraordinary.
You might see someone walking down the street in a pair of old, ripped Levis and they’ll be turning more heads than the person next to them wearing a $1,000 dollar outfit – and it may not be a difference in how handsome or pretty they are compared to the other person – it could just be the way they move, hold themselves or an air of confidence.
Some people will appreciate that assertiveness, and others will appreciate the understated taste of the expensive dresser. Using wine and alcohol and finding substitutions is kind of like this: It’s all a matter of taste and not necessarily price, and while good taste has it place, so does flair and flavor. One is not more “right” than the other.
Maybe one of your grandmothers wore house dresses and smelled like vanilla and the other dressed like Jackie O and smelled of Channel perfume. You loved them both because of the qualities they had, not because of how much money they spent on their clothing, and you may have gone to them with different issues or questions because they both bought something different to the table and met your needs in a different way.
Using wine and alcohol in cooking is much the same: Look at what your “needs” are from your ingredients and experiment, use your judgment and you’ll just “know” eventually what will work and what won’t.
Non Alcoholic Wine Substitutions
Ginger ale, Sparkling water, a clear soda pop like Sprite or Seven Up
For soups and pan sauces:
Use extra broth and add red or white wine vinegar or lemon juice right before serving using the following ratios. (Notice the broth brings some flavor and the vinegar or lemon juice brings the acidity.)
When I make a substitution like this for a beef or lamb stew that calls for a red wine, I often like to add a teaspoon or so of a dark jam, as well, to taste. It brings in the deeper, fruity/berry flavors found in red wine.
To replace 1/2 cup wine use either:
- 1/2 cup broth + 1 teaspoon wine vinegar, red or white
- 1/2 cup broth + 1 teaspoon lemon juice
For other dishes:
Consider the following substitutions. This is where your understanding of how wine works in a dish is going to be helpful and you’ll want to keep with the flavor profiles of the dish. (see notes above.) For instance, if you’re making pork chops that call for white wine, you’ll probably want to choose chicken broth and vinegar, or perhaps apple cider rather than clam juice, for sure!
In other words, this is not a bucket list of either or substitutions and requires some judgment on your part. What you are looking for is a similar flavor profile for the wine that is in keeping with the style of the dish.
- Substitute water, white grape juice, apple juice or cider, or broth – beef, chicken or a combination to get the specified amount of liquid called for in the recipe. Sometimes you can substitute vegetable stock, cranberry juice, cherry* or tomato juice. You might try liquid drained from vegetables to give a little flavor. A dark jelly can be added to broth for a deeper flavor note, something like current, concord grape or red/black raspberry jelly. If you use nonalcoholic wine, add a tablespoon of vinegar to cut the sweetness.
- Substitute an equal measure of white grape juice, ginger ale, chicken broth, apple cider, vegetable broth, liquid from canned mushrooms or artichokes, clam juice, apple juice or cider or nonalcoholic wine. A diluted cider vinegar or white wine vinegar may work here. If you use a non-alcoholic wine, add a tablespoon of vinegar to cut the sweetness.
Fortified wines and some liquors:
- As a substitute for a port, sweet sherry, rum, brandy, liqueur, substitute the following: equal measure of unsweetened orange juice or apple juice plus 1 teaspoon of corresponding flavored extract or vanilla extract.
- As a substitute for Sherry in a savory dish, consider a splash of white wine.
- In a marinade, you might substitute an equal measure of: citrus juice, lemon juice or lemonade, pineapple or orange juice, tomato juice cut with vinegar (about ¼ vinegar to one cup of the tomato juice), ½ and ½ soy and citrus, teriyaki sauce, or a vinegar cut by ½ with water, such as balsamic, red or white vinegar.
- In a dessert sauce, you might consider simply removing the ingredient, or substituting a fruit juice.
- Marsala – 1/4 cup of grape juice or dry white wine plus a teaspoon of brandy. Also, equal parts sherry and sweet vermouth, or sherry with angostura bitters.
- Mirin – Dry sherry or sweet marsala. Add a small amount of sugar, like ¼ teaspoon to a ¼ cup of wine or sherry. You could bring sugar and water to a boil, and cool and then add this mixture or corn syrup to sake, about ¼ cup sugar to ¾ cup sake, or until desired sweetness is reached. Rice Wine vinegar may work well as a substitute in Asian food.
- Tequila – In a Southwestern type of a marinade, Cactus juice or nectar. If I’m making a recipe that calls for a small bit of tequila, I sometimes use a squirt or two of lime, instead. If the recipe already has lime, I’ll just leave the tequila out. In a marinade, I might add a dash of white vinegar.
- Vermouth, Sweet – apple juice, grape juice, balsamic vinegar, non-alcoholic sweet wine.
Not on this list?
I’ve compiled a list of Common Substitutes for other alcohols, alphabetically listed. Scroll down the list for suggestions.
Need More Help or You’d Like to Share?
- Ask your question, below, tell me what you’re making, and I’d be glad to offer some suggestions. Be sure to hit the follow button for the discussion…with any luck, I just might be online. If not, you can be sure if you’re asking, someone else wants to know.
- If you have successful substitutions, I’d love to hear them…or if you’d tried something here and it didn’t work, I’d really like to know!